Greg Erlandson

How do we attract people to our church? How do we invite people to “come and see”? These are questions being asked with greater urgency these days. The “nones,” that is, those with no religious affiliation, are growing in number, while too many Catholics are walking away from any sort of consistent practice.

A great deal of effort and money is spent developing tools to encourage and inspire Catholics to go forth and evangelize. Some of this goes to glossy diocesan magazines that eschew news for catechetical and inspirational stories. Some of it goes to programs and retreats, social media campaigns and videos.

All of this may be helpful, but it struck me recently that opportunities may be closer at hand. Call this a tale of two weddings.

Two good friends of mine, married but neither Catholic, attended my sister’s recent wedding Mass. She very intentionally wanted it to be a beautiful and engaging liturgy because she knew there would be many non-Catholics and non-Christians celebrating with her.

The songs were unusual and beautifully sung. The readings were powerful. Best of all, the pastor who celebrated the Mass exuded a sense of welcome and joy. His homily was both personal and rooted in the Scripture readings.

After the wedding, my friends were enthusiastic not just about the ceremony, but about the Mass and the priest. A mountain of stereotypes was washed away by this experience. My sister’s goal was realized, to her great delight.

Ah, but fast forward one month and the same couple attended another Catholic wedding. It was the opposite in almost every way, to hear them tell the story. But the worst was when the celebrant in his homily chose to highlight what he called the five stages of marriage.

First came infatuation. He told the couple that was the stage they were in now as they sat before the altar. Next came disillusionment, he warned. Then misery. Then resignation. And finally, assuming one lasts this long, acceptance.

I do not know if the priest intended this as some sort of joke or if he simply had had too many scarring experiences in the confessional. The damage was the same in either case. That mountain of stereotypes? It just grew twice as big: A joyless church full of unhappy people hanging on for dear life until the bitter end. Who would want that?

The lesson here is that opportunities for witness and evangelization are everywhere and all about us. In our churches every Sunday are people who may be far from God, who may be hurting or in need. Even more so, at every wedding, baptism and funeral there are people who have rarely darkened a church doorway but may be listening for an invitation.

A beautiful liturgy, an engaging homily, an evident spirit of welcome and friendliness — these are acts of hospitality. Like Abraham, we don’t know the angels in our midst that we may be hosting (Gn 18). To ignore the possibility of those hidden guests or to repel them rather than invite them is a monumental failure.

It is easy today to be overwhelmed by negativity, to let our pessimism get the best of us, to let our divisions dominate. At our worst, we are quicker to complain, reject or shun than to embrace and celebrate our faith.

I am certain this is not what Christ had in mind when he gave us the Great Commission to go forth and baptize the world. If strangers are unable to see in us and our parishes what a treasure it is that we believe we have found, then we deserve our empty churches.

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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at gerlandson@catholicnews.com.